Living An Environmentally Friendly Lifestyle

Friday, May 24, 2013

Biodegradable Plastics - Are they good for the environment?

compostable plastic
So I'm browsing amazon today as I often do, and ran across a few items referred to as biodegradable plastics.  Biodegradable Plastic?  Meaning it wont clog our landfills?  Meaning it's an environmentally friendly plastic?  This can't be real! 

However, my excitement was short lived as I began to Google all things biodegradable plastic.   The more I searched for answers, the more confused I became.  It seems the term is fairly misleading.

During my research, I ran across words like polylactic acid (PLA), poly-B-hydroxyalkanoate (PHA) and poly-B-hydroxybutyrate (PHB), and it brought my confusion level to a whole new high.

I wanted straight forward answers, not scientific terms.  I just wanted to know if it's good for the environment or not! 

Laura DiMugno at MotherNatureNetwork spills it out in terms even I can understand. 
Biodegradable plastic made from materials ranging from bacteria to orange peels has been touted as a solution to the global plastic-waste problem and a way to lessen our impact on the environment. However, a closer examination reveals that biodegradable plastic may not live up to its eco-friendly image.

She also states "Unless plastic is composted or recycled, it ends up in landfills, which are designed to be kept dry and air-tight conditions that actually inhibit biodegradation."

Note that these plastics also are not recyclable, and can be harmful if thrown into the recycling bins. They have a higher melting point than typical petroleum based plastics which can wreak havoc when mixed together in the recycling process. 

DiMugno's article states "Biodegradable plastic is classified as plastic which will degrade from the action of naturally occurring microorganism, such as bacteria, fungi etc. over a period of time. To qualify as biodegradable, a material must be scientifically proven to break down completely and return to nature within a short time."

So, what is usually referred to as "biodegradable plastic" is (in reality) compostable plastic.  However, it's not compostable in the same way as your grass clippings and yard waste.  It takes a high-temperature industrial compost specifically designed specifically for compostable plastic.  So unless you plan on shipping your "biodegradable" plastic to one of the few industrial composting facilities in the United States, these plastics offer very little (if any) environmental benefits.  Biodegradable plastics such as silverware, plates and cups may be great at places like theme parks and concert events where all the refuse is contained within the facility so long as all refuse made from biodegradable plastics is not mixed with conventional plastics.  For the rest of society however, biodegradable plastics would actually seem to do more environmental harm than good for the time being.


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